A COURT decision meant to further bind east and west Germany in "inner union," as Germans like to call their post-cold-war reconciliation, is threatening to drive them further apart.
Germans have met a May 23 court decision that effectively grants amnesty to those who masterminded espionage for the Stasi, East Germany's secret police, with reactions ranging from vitriolic anger to resounding praise.
Dealing with the former East Germany's communist legacy of repression has proved so sensitive and emotional that consensus has eluded Germany's politicians, preventing moves to legislate the issue. The question was debated for four years in Germany's Constitutional Court, and even then the justices reached only a 5-to-3 majority to grant the amnesty.
Most dissatisfied with the court ruling are ultraconservative westerners, along with those who suffered under East German communism. They deplore the fact that former East German agents are escaping punishment.
"If they [the court] meant it as a step to promote inner union, I can understand this. But the risk is that it will be seen as an absolution of all perpetrators," said Gerald Hafner, a member of Parliament (MP) and a former East German dissident.
"It encourages the tendency to say, 'It [the East German Communist system] wasn't all that bad in retrospect.' And that can have a bad political impact," Mr. Hafner continued.
"The victims are being insulted, and the criminals amnestied," raged Stephan Hilsberg, another East German dissident-turned-MP.
Many easterners, who tend to be more preoccupied with making ends meet than revenge, support the ruling, saying it will help dispel the perception that western officials are carrying out "victor's justice." That perception has up to now discredited the judicial system for many easterners, complicating democratization in the region.
Justice in united Germany is governed by the former West German legal code. The court opinion technically bars the prosecution of Stasi spy masters who - operating exclusively in the former East Germany - managed extensive espionage networks to procure information compromising Western security.
CHARGES have had to be dropped against about 6,000 easterners who had either already been convicted of treason, and other espionage-related crimes, or who were still awaiting prosecution. The court basically concurred with the defendants' claim that they never betrayed their East German homeland and can't be prosecuted under present German laws.
The court ruling doesn't pertain to anyone who spied in the former West Germany, and it also allows for the further prosecution of East Germany spy masters for crimes tangential to their profession, such as blackmail and bribery. "Everything that went beyond pure espionage must still be prosecuted," Hafner said. "The Stasi was an instrument of domestic terror."
One of the people to benefit most from the court ruling - Markus Wolf, the former superspy who ran the East Germany foreign intelligence service - said he expects investigations to continue.
"My own experience with federal prosecutors who are obsessed with hunting and persecuting agents makes me cautious," Mr. Wolf said in a written statement shortly after the decision's release.
"Some have already said clearly that the hunt would continue on the basis of other laws," continued Wolf, whose six-year sentence for a 1993 espionage conviction was overturned by the May 23 decision.
Such a renewed offensive to bring Stasi agents to justice may already be under way. About a week after the Constitutional Court ruling, Gregor Gysi - leader of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the restyled former East German Communist Party - confronted new allegations that he collaborated with the Stasi.
Documents produced by a government commission overseeing the Stasi files allegedly showed that Mr. Gysi violated laws by providing Stasi agents with confidential information he had gained while serving as a lawyer defending East Germans in human rights cases. Charges of collaboration were also made against other PDS leaders.
The evidence is being reviewed by a legislative committee, and there have been calls for Gysi to give up his Parliament seat. Past allegations against Gysi have proved unsubstantiated. The embattled PDS leader described allegations as "false, unserious, and sloppy," and complained of an "official attempt at character assassination."